- Historic Sites
“To Open The Door”
A famous educator reviews 100 years of service by the land-grant colleges
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
Both institutions began under rugged pioneer condictions. The town of East Lansing in Michigan, seat for Michigan’s new “state college,” was only five years old and located at the end of an ofttimes impassable dirt road. The new Pennsylvania school was located at the very center of the commonwealth in the midst of farm fields around which was to develop a new town. Both institutions were created as “people’s colleges,” and both were essentially the product of governmental support of higher education, rather than privately created and endowed. A new era in the history of education in America had been born.
Early years of both institutions were full of hardship and struggle. The newborn schools in Michigan and Pennsylvania turned to their state legislatures for further financial aid. Then, under rising popular pressure, the federal government through Congress was called upon to share what now appeared as a truly national responsibility. As early as 1858, a young member of Congress from Vermont named Justin S. Merrill introduced an act to set aside public lands for the several states to be sold to provide additional funds for state-created and supported colleges.
The Morrill proposal was vetoed by President Buchanan as outside the legitimate powers of the federal government. Many measures, vetoed by Buchanan under pressure from the South, were revived with the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. Thus it was that in 1862 Morrill’s Land-Grant College Act was introduced again, passed and signed by Lincoln. According to Congressman Morrill, “the design was to open the door to a liberal education for this larger class, at a cheaper cost, and to tempt them by offering not only sound literary instruction but something more applicable to the productive employments of life.”
The act had as its purpose lour interdependent goals. First was the broad desire to provide a new type of liberal and practical education to supplement the prevailing classical higher education of the day; second, to develop systematic training in agriculture and the mechanical arts. Morrill himself stressed yet a third objective; to help those children of the farmer and the laborer who might wish to “adhere to the classics.” The fourth and final objective was to insure a systematic system of military training in these institutions as a basis for national defense. Each of the land-grant colleges has been committed to a program of military training for students.
Under the Merrill Act, 30,000 acres of federal lands were allocated to each state for each representative and senator. Land script was issued for these lands to be sold by the states. The income from land sales constituted a permanent endowment for those colleges designated by the respective state legislatures to receive this aid as land-grant institutions.
One cannot resist speculating whether or not Abraham Lincoln, as he put his signature to the Morrill Act, had a vision of the future growth and services of the colleges and universities which he thus made possible. I am inclined to think that he did have such a vision of the future. Henry Varnum Poor, in a series of mural paintings in Old Main at the Pennsylvania State University, pictures Lincoln as viewing the land-grant colleges as a triumph for the people in education—a step toward a fuller democracy.
It is in this light that we should view the land-grant colleges and universities. It is the proud heritage of all of them in every state and territory. The Michigan State College and the Pennsylvania State University, as the first institutions founded along lines of this unique pattern, are celebrating the triumph of a great democratic ideal and heritage. The ideal and the heritage are a free public education at all levels for even American box and girl.